I’m a recovering alcoholic, and I lost my father to alcoholic liver disease six and half years ago. I’m also a former nurse who worked in mental health and addictions. As you can imagine, this gave me a unique perspective on alcohol and health problems.
I quit drinking when I was 42 years old, and by then, I had racked up a host of health issues that were most definitely mediated by alcohol. For at least a decade before I quit, I had headaches, joint pain, severe depression, extreme fatigue, poor sleep, problems digesting food, and chronic bowel issues. All of these issues went away when I quit.
My father was also very ill for at least 15 years before his death. The last five years of his life were spent with pain, severe neuropathy, immobility, out-of-control diabetes, and serious digestive issues. The denial of his alcoholism made him believe that these health issues came out of nowhere. He thought he just had terrible luck.
Last year, I lost another precious family member on my father’s side due to alcoholism that caused dementia, uncontrolled diabetes, and an inability to eat. Again, the last 15 years of her life was spent in pain, discomfort, depression, chronic diarrhea, and severe malnutrition.
The point I’m trying to make is that death is not the only thing to fear when it comes to excessive alcohol intake. The most fearful is what it does to your life and health for many, many years before death. And because people tend to protect their alcohol use, most people never realize that their serious health issues are from alcoholism.
If you don’t know, here’s a list of health issues connected to or caused by excess alcohol use. These issues can begin at an early age and cause significant disability, discomfort, and reduced quality of life for many years.
- Type 2 diabetes
- chronic liver issues
- neuropathic pain in hands and feet
- migraines and headaches
- severe depression and mental illness
- chronic digestive and bowel issues which makes eating, elimination, and absorption of nutrients difficult
- chronic malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies
- thiamine deficiency (all alcoholics have this, and it causes severe issues)
- cardiovascular issues
- high blood pressure
- weight gain and swelling
- vascular problems
- endocrine issues
- increased estrogen (both men and women)
- kidney stones
- chronic gout
- chronic pancreatitis
Typically, when people think about the dangers of too much alcohol, they usually equate it with early death, and while this is true, it’s not the whole picture. Not everyone dies early from alcoholism. But those who do drink too much will experience many of the above health issues. As I said, these issues will cause disability, reduced quality of life, and significant discomfort at an earlier age.
So it’s not death that one should worry about from excessive alcohol intake; rather, it’s the severe disruption in quality of life. And this disruption happens within a year or two from the start of excessive alcohol use.
Many of these health issues are hard to treat because, without the cessation of alcohol use, the symptoms will persevere through any medical treatment. It can be very confusing for doctors to understand because often, people who drink excessively don’t tell their doctors about it. Instead, you can go through many years of feeling very sick.
Let me repeat; these issues can happen to anyone who drinks over the safe drinking guidelines, which is one drink per day for a woman and two drinks a day for a man. Also, these issues happen early on before alcohol would ever cause death. The more people understand this, the more they can make good choices around their alcohol use.
It should be evident to people that before death comes severe long-term intractable illness. However, the way alcohol is marketed and used, most people think their health will be fine, and that illness and death only happen to “other people.”
I want to say though, there are very important and significant reasons why people use alcohol. Alcohol is a like a salve that covers up a lot of emotional and physical pain, even though it actually causes more in the end. Most of us who drink excessively do so because of how it numbs all of our physical and emotional pain. When we are actually drinking, everything feels fine. But it’s what happens when we aren’t drinking and withdrawal kicks in that can be brutal. And once health issues start to surface, we lose our grip on creating a healthy and calm life.
Over time, alcohol can change the nervous system to such a degree that you may not even realize how it has hijacked your mind and wellbeing. Also, alcohol withdrawal is very serious and so most people just keep drinking to avoid that. It becomes a very vicious cycle.
The good news is that there’s lots of treatment for pain, trauma, and mental health issues now, and I encourage anyone who drinks too much to look into getting treatment instead of letting alcohol run your life. You and your quality of life will be better for it.
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